How to Grow Hot Peppers in Your Garden
Do you like your food spicy? Growing your own hot peppers can be a fun and affordable way to have lots on hand. It also allows you to experiment with unique varieties you can’t easily buy in a store. Hot peppers are easy to grow with some basic ground rules.
Which pepper variety packs the most heat is hotly debated. The spiciness level in a pepper is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU). For example, a sweet bell pepper is 0 SHU and a jalapeño is 2,500 – 8,000 SHU. That may sound hot, but jalapeños are on the lower end of the scale.
These are some varieties that really turn up the heat.
Serrano – 10,000 – 23,000 SHU. This is a smaller, spicier relative of the jalapeno that’s widely used in Mexico.
Habanero – 100,000 – 350,000 SHU. The most common habanero is a small, orange pepper. Other varieties are available in shades of red, chocolate, white and yellow.
Devil’s Tongue Red – 250,000 – 500,000 SHU. The original Devil’s Tongue is a yellow hot pepper developed by an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania. This red variety is twice as fiery as the original.
Ghost Pepper (Bhut Jolokia) – 800,000 – 1,041,427 SHU. Native to India, this pepper has been hybridized into many different varieties. All of them are blazing hot.
Trinidad 7 Pot – Over 1,000,000 SHU. The name refers to the saying that one pepper is so insanely hot, it can spice at least 7 pots of stew.
Smokin’ Ed’s ‘Carolina Reaper’ – 1,569,300 SHU on average. Officially the hottest pepper in the Guinness Book of World Records. It was developed by Ed Currie from the PuckerButt Pepper Company, who claims his job is to create “weapon quality peppers”.
For more varieties, check out Cayenne Diane’s Big List of Hot Peppers.
Planning Your Growing Season
Keep in mind that the hottest peppers often take the most time from seed planting to fruit harvest. For example, peppers like jalapeno, serrano and cayenne often germinate in 3 to 5 weeks. Whereas, hotter peppers like habanero, scotch bonnet and ghost peppers can easily take up to 6 weeks to germinate.
It takes another 5 to 6 weeks for your seedling to mature enough to plant out. And then it can be 2 to 4 months before you can start harvesting mature fruit, depending on the variety. If you buy pepper seeds, the package should tell you the total days from germination to fruit harvest.
Starting Your Peppers
The best way to get the variety you want is to start your peppers from seed. Many online seed companies carry a great selection of peppers, ranging from mild to scorching. Seedlings may be available at your local garden center, although varieties will likely be more limited.
Plant your seeds in a well-draining potting mix in small pots and water them in. Place the pots in a bright area, like a window sill or under a grow light if you have one. Higher temperatures promote faster germination. Ideal soil temperature is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) or higher. You can use an electric heating mat to provide bottom heat and keep the soil warm.
Let your seedlings grow until they have at least three or four sets of leaves. Plant them into bigger pots if needed. When the danger of frost has passed, start to harden off your seedlings by taking them outside during the day for a week or two. This will get them used to living outdoors and prevent shock when you plant them out permanently.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that hot peppers grow best in hot temperatures. Plant them outside in a sunny location or inside a greenhouse, cold frame or other cover. This will help them develop an intense heat and flavor. Air temperatures around 80 or 90 degrees Fahrenheit (26 to 32 degrees Celsius) are ideal to promote fruiting.
They like a rich soil and can be fertilized periodically with organic compost or a commercial fertilizer designed for vegetables. Keep the soil evenly moist, but not too wet or too dry. Overly wet soil will literally water down your fruit and they won’t be as hot.
Hot pepper plants may set more fruit if you grow them in a container. So, don’t avoid growing peppers if you only have a small space. One plant on your patio can still give you an excellent crop of peppers.
If your peppers are indoors, you’ll need to pollinate the flowers by hand. It’s easy to do by brushing your finger over each flower to move pollen from one flower to the next. You can also do this with a small paint brush.
Wait until your fruits become a deep red, orange, yellow, purple or whatever color the specific variety is when mature. You can pick green peppers if you’d like a milder heat, but the longer they can stay on the plant, the hotter they’ll be.
Peppers are great fresh off the plant. Although, don’t try eating the hotter varieties plain unless you know you can handle it. Some peppers have a burn that can stay in your mouth for hours. Try adding a small amount of fresh pepper to a large pot of chili or other dish to determine how hot that variety is.
Your peppers can also be dried or frozen for storage. Dried peppers can be kept whole or ground into powder.
Hot Pepper Recipes
Wondering what to do with your crop? Check out some of these recipe ideas.
- Fresh Hot Pepper Sauce
- Hot and Healing Tomato Soup
- Molten Habanero Cornbread
- Crock Pot Spicy Vegetarian Chili
- Grilled Summer Squash with Peppers
- Spicy Penne all’Arrabbiata
- Smoked Potato Avocado Salad
- Spicy Mexican Hot Chocolate Cookies
- Hot Pepper Jelly
- Pickled Hot Pepper Rings
- Hot Pepper Relish